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On Mission to Caesar


 With his words about Caesar and God, Jesus, the first to do so in history, separated religion from state. It is Christ who commands us to keep these two separate. The state is secular, i.e. it deals with the organization and administration of our earthly affairs, with its three-fold powers of executive (“the government”), legislative (“parliament”) and judicial (“the courts”). All of these are summed up in the word “Caesar.” The word “God” by contrast represents everything to do with our relationship with God: religion, church and the organization and administration of our spiritual affairs. It, too, can be said to have a three-fold power or ministry: the pastoral (the governance of the Church), the proclamation of the Word (teaching authority and content) and the sanctifying (divine worship, such as the Mass, and the sacraments).

But this formal separation of church and state does not mean that secular and religious powers and affairs do not interact. They certainly do. For example, the state itself has to have laws which recognise (not grant!) freedom of religion and protect it. How we live our earthly affairs has consequences for our spiritual and eternal life. In the end, Caesar belongs to God, too! Many times in history the state sought to control the church, and the church had to struggle to defend its rightful freedom. There were times, too, when church authorities tried to interfere in the legitimate independence of secular power. So, these two realities need to talk to one another in order to ensure that the one does not overstep its limits into the other, and also in order to resolve or avoid potential conflicts between them which can come about simply because a believer is also a citizen!

It is for this reason that the Catholic Church, in the figure of the Pope, developed from its inception the practice of sending its representatives to states and kingdoms and empires across the world. By the same token, the Pope received representatives from those secular authorities. This is another way of speaking of papal diplomacy. Its main aim is to serve the local church in a given country by strengthening the church’s ties with the Pope, but also by strengthening the ties of cooperation and mutual understanding between the Pope and local bishops, on the one hand, and the state government, on the other.

I had the privilege for over sixteen years of being part of papal missions to various countries and to the UN in Geneva. If you like, I was on a mission to Caesar, first to love and serve the church and people in the countries I was sent to, but secondly to promote and defend the rights and freedom of the Church, “of God”, before Caesar. This is just one of many forms of missionary work in the Church.